Voter registration has come and gone with disappointingly low numbers recorded by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) for the 2019 general election. The Weekend Post newspaper dated 17-23 November 2018 reports that ‘approximately 750 000 electorates have registered; civic, voter education is not our mandate-IEC; IEC says they shouldn’t be blamed for low registration; Commission registers low registration turn out in history; Commission to carry out research on voter apathy’. The IEC has virtually disowned any culpability to the poor state of voter registration yet the electorate are their main customers as do political parties. In this conversation, I argue without flinching that the IEC is duty bound to ensure that there is reasonable voter education campaign to translate into both the registration and the high turn-over in the elections. Because the IEC has failed to register satisfactory numbers in the just concluded voter registration, it takes refuge in the argument that nowhere in the electoral law is any provision that compels it to undertake voter education. This argument is made by the IEC Principal Public Relations Officer Rre Osupile Maroba in an interview with the Weekend Post edition referred to above.
Before delving into the subject matter, let us see what other elections management bodies say about voter education. The SADC Lawyers Association issued a preliminary recommendation after the South African general election in 2014 that ‘the IEC should have continuous voter education, including for electoral officials….’ Goal 4 of the South African IEC is to ‘strengthen electoral democracy through education for public participation-We exceeded our target for the number of civic and voter education events. During the period under review, we conducted 4875 educational events and directly reached 609 676 participants’. The SADC Parliamentary Forum Election Observation Mission to the 2018 Zimbabwe Harmonised Mission elections in which Botswana was represented by Hon Sedirwa Kgoroba and Hon Botlogilwe Tshireletso, observed under Civic and Voter Education sub heading in its report that ‘voter education assumed a multi-pronged approach which included print and electronic media adverts, door to door campaigns, distribution of posters, pamphlets and leaflets, road shows, use of billboards and operation of an electoral information dissemination….’ Polyas says that ‘voter education means providing citizens of a democracy with basic information about participating in elections. Voter education is often provided by the State itself, often through a national electoral commission….’ The Kenya Human Rights Commission in a paper titled ‘Observation of the 2014 Botswana General Elections’ observed under Civic/voter education that that ‘During the 2014 electioneering period, IEC conducted various community outreach workshops/events that sought to sensitise the citizens about the electoral issues pertaining to the elections. While we commend IEC for the sensitization exercise they conducted and especially the use of technology to disseminate information during the 2014 election period, it goes without saying that there is still room for improvement’. In effect, the Kenya Human Rights Commission is saying as an observer in the 2014 general election, that the IEC had embarked on a civic/voter education which the very same IEC is now telling us that it is not part of its mandate to do so.
Rre Maroba is quoted by the Weekend Post to have said that ‘if you can look at the Electoral law, it is not the mandate of the IEC to carry out civic and voter education. It is not the legal mandate of the IEC’. Whose mandate is it then one could justifiably ask? Granted, there are many stakeholders whose mandate is to facilitate and provide civic and voter education. Amongst these I argue, is the IEC which should assume the leading role as the manager of electoral processes in this country. Rre Maroba must be reminded that governmental portal (www.gov.bw) on IEC says that ‘The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) offers the following services: demarcation of polling districts, registration of voters….voter education’. (My emphasis). It should follow therefore that either the government portal or Rre Maroba is telling the truth.
We will be reminded that as soon as the EVM conundrum took the centre stage, the IEC spent a fortune in sending people to India and other places to learn about these gadgets; facilitated the arrival of Bharat Electronics officials which was rumoured to be the preferred supplier of EVMs; went on a long tour of constituencies to sensitise Batswana on the EVMs. In the event that the Electoral (Amendment) Act of 2016 would have had a commencement date and would have as a consequence been the law to use for the 2019 general election, it was expected that the IEC would have undertaken an educational tour to teach Batswana on how to use EVMs. It is not clear to me whether the law Rre Maroba is referring to explicitly provides for the finer, step by step operational details of the IEC. Even if the Electoral Act cap 02:09 doesn’t provide for civic and public education as he wants us to believe, it is not the duty of the IEC as the managers of electoral processes to ensure that this is spelled out in the law given that voter education is central to any election?
While it is acknowledged that the IEC cannot on one hand be expected to push every eligible voter to the voting booth on election day because that is purely an individual’s choice, it is on the other its duty to ensure that voters are sufficiently informed about elections. As part of the SADC Parliamentary Forum on Election Observation for example, the IEC cannot expect to be seen to be singing from a different tune (perhaps when it suits it) to that of other elections management bodies in one respect or the other. It is important to mention that while other factors beyond the IEC’s control largely contributed to the low voter registration, the IEC itself was caught wanting in some respects. The fact that registration personnel for example was reported to be at loggerheads with the Commission over pay disputes conclusively confirms that the registration exercise itself could have been compromised by such personnel being unhappy and demotivated to provide expected professional service to both the Commission and the electorate. It is disappointing and unforgivable that an institution tasked with the responsibility of registering voters would be caught in such an industrial relations episode. This is a red flag that could potentially suggest that the conduct of elections in earnest next year
At the end of the day and as already mentioned, I argue that the IEC has unqualified fiduciary duty to the voters to ensure that they are sufficiently informed about elections through a properly structured voter education exercise. The argument by the IEC that the law somewhat precludes it from civic and voter education responsibilities is a weak ground presumably constructed to insulate itself from the poor voter registration exercise. Would any reasonable government take issue with the IEC if it undertook voter education even if the law explicitly or otherwise, doesn’t so provide? The IEC must stop playing the victim card, stand up beyond semantics and be counted as an institution that facilitates and promotes elections. Judge for Yourself!